ASHBURN, Virginia – A fourth-down play in his Washington Redskins debut featured the best of running back Adrian Peterson -- using his vision, quickness and explosion to gain 15 yards around the end. It also included a familiar sight: a fullback leading the way.
During his best days with Minnesota, Peterson often ran behind a fullback. But there’s a chance that scene won’t be repeated often in Washington.
And that’s OK with Peterson. In fact, he repeated a long-stated preference for lining up solo for a simple reason.
“It takes an extra defender out of the box,” said Peterson, who carried 11 times for 56 yards in his debut and said he felt fresh.
But there’s another reason, too, which is why he’s looking forward to this season.
“I haven’t been able to be patient with a lot of my runs in a long time because the last couple teams I played for, the offensive lines weren’t the greatest with the exception of New Orleans,” Peterson said. “They had a decent line but I didn’t get a lot of time. But my last two years in Minnesota, we really struggled and then in Arizona it was rough. Being able to trust these guys and know I have guys up front that can get to their blocks, that will hold their blocks, will allow me to play slower and be more patient.”
If that leads to success out of a one-back set, Peterson and the Redskins would be ecstatic. Peterson also said he wants to spend the next two weeks getting in sync with the line and making sure the receivers finish their blocks. If that happens, he'll feel less of a need to run behind anyone else.
But Peterson's career numbers running behind a fullback are eye-popping. When in a two-back set, Peterson has averaged 5.07 yards per carry, according to ESPN Stats & Information. With two backs and one tight end, that number jumps to 5.27 yards. When he’s lined up by himself in the backfield, Peterson’s numbers remain solid, averaging 4.57 yards per carry. It was 3.42 yards on 153 such carries last season.
The Redskins don’t use a lot of I-formation plays with a fullback. They also haven’t kept a true fullback on the roster the past two seasons. Coach Jay Gruden said there’s a chance they won’t have one this year, either, though J.P. Holtz has opened eyes with his blocking the past two games. Holtz helped spring Peterson on the fourth-and-1 carry vs. Denver. His block gave Peterson the option to cut in or out; he turned it outside.
“He made a key block on that and gave me a two-way go,” Peterson said. “If you have guys [who can] do that, put him out there, because I know he’ll hit it fast and lock on his guy. That’s a lot better for running backs.”
But there’s a downside to running behind a fullback.
“It all depends,” Peterson said. “If you got a guy like Tony Richardson, he’ll go through and be fast and you know what to expect every time. Then you have some guys who aren’t really fast off the ball ... They’re too slow because they’re trying to read or they’re not certain in what they’re doing and it slows a back down.”
Richardson blocked for Peterson during his rookie season in 2007 when he averaged 5.44 yards out of two-back sets (and 5.56 when solo). In his 2,097-yard season, Peterson ran behind fullback Jerome Felton. Peterson averaged 6.87 yards when Felton was in the game (and 6.03 overall).
In Gruden’s first four seasons, the Redskins rank 13th in the number of carries from a one-back set and are 22nd with two backs. The Redskins ran Peterson out of multiple sets in his debut, from I-formation to offset-I, as well as solo with both two tight ends and three receivers.
Gruden said Peterson told him he was more comfortable in a one-back set. That means Gruden won’t have to change the run game to adapt to Peterson.
“He’s done it all,” Gruden said. “At Arizona he had a couple big games and he didn’t have a fullback. They ran similar plays that we run -- the tight gap play and outside zone, inside zone. So that’s what we’re featuring with him.”
The Redskins will have to decide how to best handle other packages that require shotgun formation. If Peterson isn’t the best fit in some of those, then they’d just turn to third-down back Chris Thompson.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Peterson said. “But my personal preference is [solo] if you don’t have that guy that’s consistently doing the job the right way 100 miles per hour.”
Regardless, his job now will be to show he can handle a full load. Because he felt good about his work Friday, he's not worried about how often he's used.
"I always go into the season or any game thinking if they call it 40 times, I'll be ready to run it 40 times," Peterson said. "Whatever load they give me, I'll be ready for it."